Flashback to 2000, in the dead of the winter, I had arrived in Xiahe to check out what is the largest Tibetan village outside of Tibet itself. Xiahe is located on the southern edge of Gansu Province and is the home to the majestic Labrang Monastery, built in the 1700s, where many Buddhist Monks come from afar to spin the prayer wheels as they circumnavigate the temples. The image of Xiahe in 2000, with its majestic snow-capped mountains and rolling grasslands, was firmly imprinted on my mind and I had always wished to find a way back to the region.
I had rented a old style Chinese bicycle from the guest house I was staying and rode south on a meandering rough gravel road for a number of kilometers. Back then I remember admiring the wild expanse of grasslands with virtually no settlements or development to speak of. I saw the odd Tibetan family yurt settlement, a deeply tanned Tibetan farmer herding his flock of sheep who flashed a brilliant white smile in my direction as I stopped to take a photo. My explorations in Xiahe was limited to just two days and I vowed that I would come back to this beautiful jewel in China.
The next opportunity to actually get back to Xiahe came 15 years later where I was invited to participate in the inaugural Sino Epic Gannan MTB 3-day race, which was held on July 24-26, 2015. I seized the opportunity to go back to what I considered one of my most memorable travel experiences in China. My wife accompanied me as my personal photographer and was able to follow the race from the comfort of the lead car.
The Gannan Grasslands cover an area of 2.51 million hectares and is known be one of China’s top six most beautiful grasslands, featuring crystal clear lakes, vast grasslands and numerous kinds of wild-life. It is a dream for many to cycle in Tibet, but it can be quite troublesome to obtain a permit for entry to Tibet and it has to be part of a tourist group; however Gannan is actually home to large populations of Tibetans and is considered to be part of Tibet, this means you are actually experiencing the Tibetan region and culture without the need for a travel permit.
The organizer, Jonathan Pan from Digmann Sports, is extremely excited about this event and has plans for it to become a premier MTB adventure race that rivals events like Mongolia Bike Challenge and Cape Epic in South Africa, a race with an average altitude of 3,000m and over 1,000m of climbing daily. This makes it a perfect altitude training camp! For the first year, due to the short time-frame to organize the event, 80% of the course was held on sealed roads with some off-road sections. It is planned for the 2016 edition to increase the off-road experience and lengthen the stages.
There are plans to venture deep into the grassland wilderness and camp like nomads in the future. The future of this race looks highly promising and is the second MTB stage race to be on offer in China (the first MTB stage race was the Genghis Khan MTB Adventure); it offers age group categories and also a 2-man team category with the same format as Cape Epic. There is good prize money on offer which can help cover your expenses. Getting to the event, like the Sailimu Lake Tour in far west Xinjiang, is a mission in itself and could deter most people. Don’t let it deter you if you wish to ride your mountain bike in a beautiful remote part of the world. At the moment, there are two ways to get to the event: Option 1. Fly to Xian and then take a smaller flight to Xiahe Airport (however flights are limited). This option will be a much shorter land transfer to the hotel. Option 2: Fly to Lanzhou and organizers will have a bus to take you to Hezuo (the race start city). There will be an option 3 in the future in the form of high speed rail, but presently its still under-construction. Information about this race is limited to only Chinese at the moment, but there are plans to launch an English website version with all the details of the 2016 edition which looks to be expanded to four stages.
The people in the Gannan region are extremely hospitable and will invite you to enjoy a cup of tea. It is also a refreshing escape from the rest of China that is mostly shrouded in a layer of pollution. The sun shone bright and the clouds were wispy white against the deep blue sky. We were fortunate that it was sunny every day, but the evenings had a noticeable sudden drop in temperature so that another layer was needed. As you walk the streets, you feel like half the town is taking notice as foreigners are seldom seen in this part of the world. Lamb dishes are a feature of your experience, so make sure you try plenty of lamb during your stay in Gannan. The regional tea with its many different flowers and dates that float in the hot water create an interesting blend of flavors; don’t leave the region without experiencing this type of tea at dinner-time. The Yak yogurt sprinkled with sugar grains tastes wonderful as did the special Tibetan lamb dumplings. The culinary food highlight for me was seeing the large whole roast lamb being wheeled into the dining tent; it was perhaps the best lamb I have eaten in China. It was one of those times where I felt justified to break my 95% vegan (plant-based) eating diet to gorge on the tender juicy meat. This was finished with the yak yogurt and the flower tea to wash it all down.
Xiahe over the last 15 years has seen rapid development, however it still retains its charm that I was enamored with back in 2000. It still has the feeling of a wild west Tibetan village but has more streets and higher buildings erected. Plus the government has been actively trying to encourage the Tibetan nomads to settle down in one place, thus an influx of housing developments has sprung up along that meandering gravel valley road that I first rode on in 2000. It is now paved the whole way and you pass through numerous ramshackle villages. However if you turn off the paved “highway” that is now frequented by throngs of Chinese tourists, you can still find adventure and beauty in the grasslands. You just have to go off-the-beaten track to find it and quite quickly you can be alone on the vast lands with no one in sight but the colorful flag poles that are erected on mountain tops and a wonderful silence of nature punctuated by the sight of eagles circling in the air and the odd herdsman with his flock of goats and sheep. Despite significant tourism development, the region is massive with its millions of hectares of open and untouched grasslands. We can explore them together in the coming years.